The Memphis Massacre of 1866: A Conference Blog

Readers of this blog will recall that not long ago I mentioned the Memphis Massacre of 1866 (also known as the Memphis Riot of 1866, although the reasons for the renaming are of interest) in examining a rather badly-flawed attempt to discuss the event and its implications.

It seems only right and proper to direct you now to a blog bringing together and reporting on the results of a recent conference on the event. Click here to go there. I guarantee you’ll learn something.

I think this is a wonderful way to share the scholarship presented at a conference by people who know what they are talking about, and I believe more conferences should follow suit.

The Sunday Question: Who Was the Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalry Commander?

The nominees are:

  1. Jeb Stuart: Lee’s eyes and ears, who might have even made a good corps commander had he retained command of Jackson’s corps after Chancellorsville (note the Gettysburg what-ifs usually shy away from that possibility). His performance during the Gettysburg campaign remains the most controversial part of his Civil War career.
  2. Nathan Bedford Forrest: Forrest has his fans, and not always for the right reasons. Moreover, he did not play well with others, and it’s a good question whether he made that much of an impact strategically. Still, the man could fight, and fight well.
  3. Wade Hampton: There are those who believe that Hampton might have been better than Stuart, and that he performed well after Stuart’s death. Others may claim that he never had a chance to display his talents for long in an independent command in Virginia.
  4. Joe Wheeler: Wheeler’s men did a lot of damage. Of course, white Georgians claimed that his men forgot that they were on the same side.
  5. Anyone else come to mind? For you Romeos out there, there’s Earl Van Dorn. And if you like nepotism, Fitz Lee’s reliable.

The Growing Vacuousness of Confederate Heritage

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s speculated about the decline and eventual disappearance of Confederate heritage commemorationsimplying that perhaps confining such ceremonies in time and place may prolong their existence by confining their expression to appropriate venues and occasions. As you might well imagine, some of Kevin’s most vocal critics (who also happen to be among his most loyal readers) offered their usual pitiful petulant protests. Fine, folks: just go raise another flag somewhere and claim victory.

Although I appreciate Kevin’s argument, I hold a different view (although I suspect that Kevin agrees with much of what I am about to say). I think that the real problem with Confederate heritage today is that it has less and less to do with the Confederacy or any sort of heritage and much more to do with serving as a vehicle through which people express their political views and cultural preferences. There are several themes sometimes associated with Confederate heritage that come through in these declarations, much as other themes woven throughout Confederate heritage reappear in the claims made by critics of Confederate heritage (think slavery, folks: there’s no Confederacy without it).

Neither advocates nor critics comprehend Confederate heritage as a whole, although critics do a better job of relating that heritage to history, an area where Confederate heritage advocates often struggle, largely due to their ignorance or their anxiety to find a usable past to justify their present perspectives. Rather, they rest with complaining about the “race card” or “political correctness,” a sure sign that they can’t actually articulate a compelling defense of Confederate heritage on its merits or why Americans should honor or at least tolerate it. In short, the concept of Confederate heritage is increasingly intellectually bankrupt, and its advocates have no one but themselves to blame.

It is precisely this difficulty in framing a defense of Confederate heritage on its own merits that proved so devastating to Confederate heritage prospects in 2015 in the aftermath of the Charleston murders. Simply put, the defenders never articulated a defense of Confederate heritage on its merits. They were reduced to assailing their critics and tossing around slogans. We see the same incapability in New Orleans and Charlottesville. Take the latter case: we already know that sooner or later we’ll see a Confederate battle flag go up somewhere in Albemarle County.  We may see even more than one. Surely the residents of Charlottesville have read about the proliferation of Confederate battle flags in Danville. Yet that concern does not drive the debate in Charlottesville, in part because the folks in Charlottesville remember the sight of Karen Cooper ranting and raving uncontrollably about social policy.

You can see Karen Cooper start her comments at 1:34:25 on the video.
You can see Karen Cooper start her comments at 1:34:25 on the video.

Cooper’s life story, which draws attention because people find her to be an unusual advocate of Confederate heritage, actually suggests that she is quite typical except in the blunt frankness with which she expresses what really makes her tick. It’s not as if her fellow Confederate heritage advocates are not intellectually lazy. They are. But at least some of them do a better job of concealing their political and cultural agenda, one that would not tolerate someone sharing Cooper’s assertiveness for very long.

One could point out, of course, that heritage has always had its inherently political aspects, and that is true. Tales of heritage often have a political message, including explaining, justifying, or challenging the existing order of things. But what makes the cutting edge of current Confederate heritage so interesting is that it has very little to do with the historical Confederacy, at least not in ways that its proponents want to highlight. This helps explain all the bleating about “playing the race card” and “political correctness” to obscure the white supremacist aspects of the Confederacy while overlooking the ways in which proslavery forces themselves endorsed “big government” to protect the peculiar institution (see the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) and how the Confederate experiment repressed self-determination (ask southern white Unionists) or moved in the direction of “big government” (see conscription and impressment, to say nothing of the Confederacy’s sorry record when it came to civil liberties).

What this means, of course, is that efforts to defend Confederate heritage are so muffled by the rhetoric of current politics and cultural values that surround it that the proponents of that heritage fumble away any effort to defend it on its merits. They would rather raise the specter of removing other statues, for example, because they really can’t tell you why those statues they adore should stay where they are. The “you are erasing history” mantra is equally bizarre, because the “history” being erased is evidence of the reasons the statues were put up, not the story of the person or event being commemorated (are you going to tell me that white southerners needed a statue of Robert E. Lee to remember who he was?). Indeed, to explain all the reasons the statues went up (however unpopular that might be in some corners) is, I think, a worthwhile project, but one that advocates of Confederate heritage might not endorse. And let’s not forget the advocates of a Confederacy that celebrates “diversity.”

For many advocates (and apologists) of Confederate heritage, the politics of heritage correctness rest upon people in the present identifying with people in the past who are, to a greater or lesser extent, creatures of  Confederate heritage advocates’ imagination that sometimes barely resembled the people heritage is supposed to honor. Whenever I hear about how “we” lost the war or what “we” are going to do next time, I know that that person or persons are living in an imaginary land where heritage is little more than a device selected to service present needs, desires, beliefs, and prejudices. That’s presentism with a vengeance, but then it’s never been about history, but heritage. Once we understand that Confederate heritage in some hands is little more than identity politics (I can’t make this stuff up), then we should be able to comprehend why exploring the historical record, however much it may do to wreck heritage claims of what happened in the past, has very little effect on the understanding of the past as professed by proponents of heritage as identity politics. After all, “heritage correctness” is really nothing more than a certain kind of “political correctness,” at least as defined by those people who whine about it all the time. It’s just a matter of explaining what sort of political and cultural beliefs we are discussing.

Remember, Confederate heritage apologists: it’s not all about you.

Then again, maybe it is.


Republicans and Black Suffrage During Reconstruction

Phil Leigh’s upset. Having had his essay on the Memphis Riots shredded in this blog, he complains that I’ve failed  “to address the central question of whether black suffrage in the South was more important to Radical Republicans as a matter of morality or as a tool to sustain the Party’s political power.”

Generally speaking, that’s not the central question people choose to explore when they discuss the wholesale slaughter of African Americans, including US Army veterans, by an out-of-control white supremacist mob egged on by local leaders. But Mr. Leigh would rather not tell you whether white southerners who opposed Reconstruction killed African Americans for political advantage or simply because they were vile racists. After all, in his mind it was the murderers who were the victims, not the murdered.

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A Massacre of History

On May 1, 1866, a mob of whites in Memphis, Tennessee, attacked blacks in the city. The violence continued through May 2 and ended only after federal forces intervened on May 3. By that time some forty-six blacks were dead, while only two whites died; five women had been raped, and a significant number of people were injured. You can read a summary of the event here. Blogger Patrick Young has written on both the riot and the events leading up to it.

So has Phil Leigh in a post that reminds us of his skills as a historian. Continue reading

Gary Gallagher and the Continuing Civil War

Nearly a month ago the Twitterverse tweeted with commentary on a lecture delivered at the University of Virginia by Gary Gallagher. Apparently Gary was determined to take on current understandings of the American Civil War, namely the emphasis paid to emancipation and the debate over when the Civil War ended. Gary took several authors to task concerning the first point, which received most of his attention, before turning to the second point at the 40:45 mark of the video below:

As I understand it, Gary’s argument is that present concerns shape our inquiry of the past, framing the questions and suggesting the answers we seek. There’s nothing exceptional about that observation: it’s often at the core of many a historiographical essay, the sort of discovery usually reserved for first year graduate seminars and for the occasionally perceptive undergraduate.

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A National Civil War Memorial?

Many visitors to Washington, DC, spend a lot of time going to memorials dedicated to individuals and groups. Among the memorials they visit are ones dedicated to the Americans who fought in the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Fewer visit Pershing Park, which serves as a World War I memorial, although a new memorial is under discussion.

Between the District of Columbia and Arlington National Cemetery, there are a good number of Civil War memorials, monuments, and statues. I need not detail them here. But one might note that there is no national memorial to the American Civil War.

Should there be? Someone thinks so.

What we have here is one vision for such a memorial. Do you think one is necessary? If so, what should it include? What themes should it emphasize?

The comments section, as always, is open.

Defeat in Danville

While most of the nation watched last night as voters in Indiana dealt a death blow to one presidential candidate’s campaign while keeping alive the fantasies of another, a few people focused on a city council election held in Danville, Virginia, best known as the last capital of the Confederacy. Running for reelection were three council members who had supported the removal of a Confederate outside the Sutherlin Mansion, otherwise known as the last Confederate White House, where Jefferson Davis learned of the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant.

The Virginia Flaggers were out in force on this one:

Flaggers Danville election

Well, the results are in, and the Flaggers are not happy. So much for #novotesforturncoats. Exactly why these three people are “turncoats” is another matter altogether, but never let reality get in the way of a snappy turn of praise … like “Restore the honor.”

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